Tuesday, June 15, 2004

D.C. public school officials say at least 55 students from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties illegally enroll each year in city schools, adding that they do not know how many city students cross borders into suburban schools.

“We sure do catch students coming from Maryland,” said Julianne Wade, residency coordinator for D.C. schools. “It happens at schools in well-established neighborhoods, where parents live in Maryland but work in the District. It also happens at our specialty schools, like Duke Ellington School for the Arts.”

The District last year withdrew 55 students whose illegal enrollments were costing the city an average of $7,000 per student in lost tuition, said Ms. Wade, adding that her office catches about that many students every year.

There is no way the District can track how many city students are illegally enrolling in suburban schools, she said. “There’s nothing we can do to capture those numbers.”

Suburban students illegally enrolled in city schools add to a list of problems being weathered by the D.C. school system. Earlier this year, the federal government reported that 83 of 151 D.C. schools failed to meet national standards in reading, math or both last school year.

Meanwhile, school officials have laid off hundreds of teachers and aides to balance the budget and have been dealing with security issues arising from the fatal shooting of a student inside Ballou High School in February. City officials have been sparring over who should control the school system while searching for a permanent superintendent since the abrupt resignation of Paul L. Vance in November.

The Washington Times reported last week that as many as 2,000 — or 20 percent — of Montgomery County’s 11,000 eighth-graders whose parents missed a June 4 deadline to prove their residency will not be allowed to enroll at county high schools this fall. The county asked parents to submit documents such as lease agreements, property tax bills, credit-card statements or utility bills to prove their residency.

In addition, The Times reported Monday that Prince George’s County school officials are considering emulating Montgomery’s residency check.

Officials in both counties said many of the illegally enrolled students they have discovered live in the District.

D.C. officials acknowledged a recent decline in their enrollment that corresponds with enrollment increases in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

According to D.C. schools enrollment officer Ralph H. Neal, the number of city school children fell from 67,522 in the 2002-03 school year to 65,099 in October of the current school year. Over the past 10 years, enrollment has steadily declined by 1,000 to 2,000 students each year.

Mr. Neal said the public school system is losing students because more families are using charter schools or moving to the suburbs. He also said students illegally enrolling in suburban schools could account partially for the decline.

Prince George’s officials said enrollment has grown from 132,392 last school year to 133,454 for the current school year.

“It’s going up about 1,500 per year,” said Bill D. Greene, Prince George’s director of pupil accounting, school boundaries and student transfers.

Montgomery County’s enrollment has “climbed dramatically” in recent years, said schools spokesman Brian J. Porter.

With 139,203 students enrolled this school year, Montgomery is Maryland’s largest school district and the 18th largest in the United States. County officials also note that it is the 12th fastest-growing in the country. The county had 138,891 students last school year.

Several school administrators in both counties have reported catching several “border crossers” from the District each year.

But several principals in Northeast, not far from the D.C.-Maryland border, said they have never caught a suburban student enrolled illegally in their schools.

“We don’t have a problem,” said Peggy Mussenden, principal of Alton Elementary School, which has an enrollment of 455. “We have a free before-and-after baby-sitting service, but I’ve never caught anyone enrolling illegally because of it.”

“I’ve not encountered any residency issues,” said Jennie H. Jones, principal of Gibbs Elementary School.

Backus Middle School Principal Alfonso Powell, whose school enrolls 518 students, said: “This is my first year in D.C., and I haven’t caught anyone.”

Each illegally enrolled student costs Montgomery County $10,000 and Prince George’s County $7,500 in lost tuition a year, officials said.

The D.C. school system requires parents to prove their residency every year when they register their children. However, Maryland law only requires schools to check students’ residency when they enroll in a school district. This means that most parents never have to prove their residency after their children enter kindergarten, suburban principals said.

Mr. Porter said Montgomery County will “stretch” its proof-of-residency deadline throughout the summer to allow as many eligible eighth-graders as possible to enroll at high schools.

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